As we heal, we often discover that issues we thought we’d “put behind us,” “got a handle on,” “worked out” come around to look squarely in our face and say, “I’m back!”
Probably one of our most difficult struggles is forgiving our abuser. In my Blog on Real-Life Forgiveness (August 25, 2011) I mentioned Robert Enright, PhD. (author of Forgiveness is a Choice) who tells us that real forgiveness happens when we let go of the desire to take revenge and no longer wish evil on the one who harmed us. We do this even though we know the offender doesn’t deserve forgiveness. In essence, we stop carrying anger and resentment.
We often feel an urgent need to forgive. This rush to forgiveness can be due to our faith tenants, fear that God will not forgive us if we can’t forgive others. Let’s face it, the God who loves us knows what’s in our hearts, why we feel that way we do and our struggle to heal. For some of us, we may never be able to forgive, and that’s okay. It doesn’t make us horrible people, it recognizes the severity of the abuse. Even if we cannot forgive, we can still move forward and have a wonderful life. The healing process we go through is ripe with lessons. They come as we are ready to face them and it takes time to embrace them. This process can’t be, nor should it be, rushed.
Demands to instantly forgive also may come from our former partner or faith community. These demands are unreasonable and heap guilt on us (the victims,) shaming us and feeding our anxiety. We don’t need that. Shaming will never move us to forgive. It will only make us feel worse about ourselves, stalling the process. We need to be surrounded by people who meet us where we are and don’t try to tell us what to do or how to feel.
There are good reasons to hang onto anger and resentment and not rush into forgiving. We need to stay away from our abusers until we build up some emotional strength. Since we’ve lived in a state of denial, minimizing and explaining away our partners’ bad behavior, we may not fully comprehend how dangerous these men can be. Often they become deadly when we leave. This is where anger helps us by blocking forgiveness. Experiencing anger keeps us (and our children) at a safe distance. Anger also drives us to move forward with our lives, pushing us to make important decisions about our future. Giving us the time we need, we come to understand that forgiving doesn’t mean we reconcile with our partners. When ready, we can forgive from a distance.
The thing about forgiveness is that you cannot reach the point of letting the offenses go until you are truly ready. The hard part: You can’t make yourself be ready. The easy part: The evolution of forgiveness can work inside you if you let it. Layers of anger, hurt, frustration and many more emotions must be shed one by one until we come to the last speck of resentment and flick it away. Even after that, residue from the past can occasionally drift thorough our minds, however, it’s not as unnerving as it once was.
Before you can start, you must feel ready. You will know in the deepest part of you when it’s time. Can you leave yourself open to the idea and listen to your gut feeling? No more beating yourself up about how or when? If pressed by others, smile and say, “Thank you for your concern. I’ve got this one,” then walk away.
Clarissa Pinkola Estes (author of Women Who Run With the Wolves) talks about forgiveness having many seasons. That it isn’t a 100% or nothing deal. It changes daily. One day we may forgive 40%, another day feel only 15% forgiving.
That was my experience. As I moved through the forgiving process, there were times when I felt I’d made astounding progress (that 40%.) Then some action or word opened the floodgate and fury enveloped me (back to zero.) Sometimes I grew anxious to be finished and tried to stuff kind thoughts of the individual in my heart only to have the bottom fall out and anger gush back in. Be aware that the path to forgiveness isn’t straight.
The process shouldn’t happen until we know in the core of our being that:
- What happened to us was wrong and should not have occurred.
- It was important (a big deal.)
- We were neither responsible for, nor deserving of, the abuse.
- We accept the truth - it was as bad as it was.
Nothing anyone (including us) say or do will change these facts — forgiving will not change what happened.
When we get to that place of acceptance, we can allow ourselves to surrender to the process. Let it unfold as it will. And it will. That’s what is so remarkable about us. We don’t have to be aware of the work going on inside us. As we pull our lives together, moving forward and focusing on our future, the past becomes less important. The labels we carried, related to the pain and humiliation we experienced, fall away. We no longer dwell on the past, or feel the need to reiterate our story to elicit comments to confirm that what happened was heinous. In the deepest part of us that spent years trying to understand and rationalize away what occurred, we accept the truth. We stop waiting for a sincere apology or some behavior that makes what can’t be made right, right. We stop wishing that our abusers would suffer. Instead, we focus on our present life and make it a good one.
I’ve lived through this process. Anger, pain, resentment peeled away through my acceptance and healing. During a lament to God about how I just wanted the person to suffer comparable pain to what he’d inflicted on the family, I was clearly informed, “How do you know he hasn’t?” I didn’t know. In that moment, I understood that it wasn’t my call to make. Vindictiveness fell away.
Now, at every wedding, birth, christening event, where I encounter my former partner, I notice there's been a change in me. The anger and resentment I carried are gone. I’m grateful for that. I'm not interested in reconciliation or rehashing the story. I feel an inner peace. It took time.
Surrender to the process. Know it may take many years. If you feel you are stuck, consider seeing a therapist. I found treatment designed for Post Traumatic Stress was also very helpful. Know that your journey is deeply personal and will unfold as it will. The end result could be the ability to forgive or to accept that for you forgiving is not an option. What ever comes, Be kind to yourself.
[You can download my interview with Dr. Enright by going to www.hazelden.org/bookstore. Search for my book But He’ll Change and click on a copy. Scroll down the page to the .pdf link for Interviews with experts. This is a free download.]